A building under a fiery sunset

For the past 500 years, few months have passed in Mexico without a festival to honor a Catholic Saint or event. Loud booms of cajote fireworks explode into the sky to announce each religious celebration including the winter celebrations for the Feast of Guadalupe in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs on a golden wall above the Mexican flag
The Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

But this year, 2020, Mexico’s sacred traditions have gone silent, the masses have worshipped in solitude, and depictions of their faith have faded into the air among the droplets of an unseen virus. 

Plazas where throngs of the Church’s faithful used to gather remain empty. Who among those who understand Mexican culture could fathom Day of the Dead or the Passion Play re-enactment canceled? No religious observation will be more sorely missed than the December celebrations of Our Lady, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

To break this silence and fill the void, come with me to Mexico’s holiest shrine, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, located in the Tepeyas Hill neighborhood in northern Mexico City to witness this country’s love affair with the Virgin. Let’s revisit this pre-COVID-19 event, when I traveled there to spend a past Christmas Day.

Christmas Day With the Virgin of Guadalupe at La Villa

Standing on the stone steps at the entrance to the magnificent plaza, called La Villa, I gazed at the throngs descending on this place. Some pushed baby strollers cradling precious children, others escorted elderly parents in wheelchairs; some struggled with disabilities, others moved easily through the crowd- but all flooded up the avenue. 

It was Christmas Day and thousands of pilgrims, including myself prepared to spend this special time with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Stoic emotions painted their faces, as faithful souls came to pray to the Patron Saint of Mexico, their protectorate. For centuries, ‘She’ has been a comfort for Mexican Catholics, converts and even non-believers, curious about her miracle.

Tokens designed to enhance the spiritual interaction for each individual abounded. Many women clutched wooden or ceramic replicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe, men carried three-foot statuettes of the Virgin’s likeness, swathed in palm branches and surrounded with roses; children wore medallions of the Virgin hanging close to their hearts; teenagers, held trendy battery-operated blinking icons, with the golden aura surrounding her image flashing in neon. 

Little Passports Banners

Young and old proudly donned t-shirts that projected an artist’s reproduction. I felt naked, I came unadorned. I hadn’t anticipated the intense display of passion that resembled a political rally.

The fervor generated for this image of Virgin Mary surpassed any religious pilgrimage I had ever witnessed, including a visit to Portugal’s Fatima on Easter Sunday. Here in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe holds special meaning to her people, whose strong indigenous backgrounds tether them to the miracle that took place in December 1531. 

It is impossible to understand Mexico and its 95% Catholic culture without comprehending the national devotion and eternal affection of its people for Our Lady of Guadalupe. As an expatriate and life-long Protestant, but permanent Mexican resident, even I sensed a connection to Mexico’s sacred Lady. No one can live here and escape her pull. I felt compelled to travel to Mexico City to witness ‘Her’ most spectacular commemoration.  

The magic of being at this country’s holiest shrine, the Basilica, and the world’s second-most important Catholic site, surpassed only by the Vatican, to witness this love affair with the Virgin, made me quiver.

Wooden carved token of the Virgin of Guadalupe, hands praying and child below robes
Wooden token of the Virgin of Guadalupe and child. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Juan Diego and the Virgin Mary in Mexico City

The story behind the image has been repeated millions of times. On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzen, an Aztec-convert to Catholicism, witnessed an apparition that he believed to be the Virgin Mary, in the hills surrounding Mexico City. 

The vision manifested completely different physical characteristics than icons recognized by the Catholic Church. She was dressed in a blue-green mantle, the color reserved for the Aztec divine couple Ometecuhtli and Omecuhua. 

Radiating spokes of light framing her image represented the maguey cactus spines which the Aztecs used to make pulque, the drink known as ‘milk of the virgin;’ her belt style was considered an indigenous sign of pregnancy; she spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, his native language and her skin beamed an olive hue, not white like the European images of ‘Mary.’ 

She asked Juan Diego to report his revelation to the Bishop and to request that a shrine in her honor be built on this spot. Archbishop Fray de Zumárraga required proof of the Virgin’s appearance. On December 12th, the Virgin again appeared to Juan Diego. 

The date coincided with the Feast of Immaculate Conception, the most sacred event in the Holy Calendar of Mexican Catholics. Following ‘Her’ instructions, Juan cut a huge bouquet of Castilian roses he found growing in the hills, he filled his apron-like cloak or tilma with these long-stemmed red beauties which were not native to Mexico and would never bloom in Mexico City’s winter climate. He carried the miracle flowers to the Archbishop. 

When Juan unfurled his apron to lay the roses at the Father’s feet, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, framed in gold, was miraculously emblazoned in the agave threads of his cloak. Archbishop Zumárraga authorized the immediate construction of a shrine at the very site that the Virgin had appeared to Juan Diego and ordered that the Virgin’s image preserved in the material of his tilma be protected forever and hung in the shrine as a symbol of ‘Her’ miracle. 

Initially, Catholic Church officials questioned the wisdom of allowing the indigenous population to revere the image, but the Dominicans argued that the Aztecs’ veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe provided a lure to conversion. 

This image of the Virgin Mary that physically resembled the indigenous cultures of Mexico would finally bring meaning to the new converts to Catholicism. To them, ‘She’ became the first Mestizo, the first true Mexican who joined Old World Spain and New World reality.

Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs on a wall of gold above the Mexican flag.
Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs above the Mexican flag in Mexico City. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico 

Almost 500 years later, I found myself inside the New Basilica sandwiched among the faithful in the standing-room only crowd.  We all shuffled along on an electric people-mover, passing by that same image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had miraculously appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak. 

I felt confused as I gazed with wonder, and wanted to believe its authenticity. Encased behind bullet proof glass with an enormous Mexican flag draped beneath the still vibrant-colored image, the Virgin’s position in the completely round Basilica with a capacity of 50,000 provided a view from any point in the entire building. 

The awe, the reverence, the hope that this piece of emblazoned cloth evoked seemed as powerful as a Shroud of Turin for the Americas.

This newest shrine to house the image of Juan Diego’s coat was designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vasquez, who also built the National Museum of Anthropology. Construction began in 1974, with dedication on Oct. 12, 1976.

The New Basilica comprises only one of the cornerstones of the complex, which has, until 2020, seen uninterrupted pilgrimages to this site since the miracle on December 12th, 1531. 

The major structures, bordered by beautiful gardens commemorating Juan Diego’s interaction with the Virgin include: the Indian’s Chapel showing remains of a 16th Century partially exposed foundation of the exact spot where the apparition appeared to Juan Diego; the Capilla del Cerrito, the original chapel; the Capuchin Nun’s Temple and Convent, the Pocito Chapel; the Old Basilica, called Templo Expetoria de Cristo Rey, under construction from 1531 until 1709 and a museum of relics and period paintings. 

Two brick buildings, one with a red dome and the other with a gold dome
The Old Basilica in Mexico City

St. Michael’s Chapel, the Old Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City

At the top of Tepeyac Hill, stands St. Michael’s Chapel, built by a local family in the 16th Century, where the Virgin’s image hung during construction of the Templo Expetoria.

As I left the sacred crunch of devout worshippers inside the New Basilica, I followed the throngs headed up the hill to St. Michael’s Chapel. Pilgrims clogged the way, as hundreds of steps needed to be mounted toward the top. For some, this was not just a tough climb, but a ‘stairway to redemption.’ I watched an elderly gentleman, his face withered from hard times, taking each painstaking riser on his knees. He shrugged off assistance or intervention, with devout penance. 

A bright sun warmed us, as much as the exertion. At several landings, the atmosphere took on a carnival feel. Concession stands selling water and refreshments, trinkets, postcards stands and food vendors offered enjoyable stops along the way. Finally, I reached the pinnacle of the mountain. The view of the sprawling complex below revealed a crowd that had swelled, overflowing through the portal gates during my ascent.

Wise organizers of the site constructed a separate set of stairs down. We meandered through the lovely gardens, stopping to take-in the sculptured depiction of Juan Diego revealing his cloak and the Virgin’s image to the Archbishop. Back at ground zero, we entered the Old Basilica, which housed the image from 1709 until 1974. 

This massive cathedral with its church spires and bell towers appeared to be leaning, drastically. As I walked inside the Basilica, I felt as though I was standing on a slant, a feeling of sliding backward and seasick nausea when a ship goes a-tilting. 

Mexico City was built on a series of filled-in lakes 500 years ago. Over time, this gorgeous structure, along with many other period buildings, have slowly sunk beneath the surface. A huge crevice, roped off from onlookers revealed a six-foot disparity.  

The same queasiness of imbalance returned when I toured the museum, with pictures hanging askew. This tilting seemed to me to be a sign from the Virgin that our lives and our ways have gone awry and need straightening, and without correction, we may all fall into an abyss.

Flowers hang above a shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Angels stand on both sides of the image while Jesus hangs below a vase of roses.
A shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

The Miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico 

Throughout the centuries, several events have served to cement the Mexican people’s faith in ‘Her.’ In 1921, a disgruntled parishioner set off a bomb inside the Old Basilica, causing significant damage to the altar and its gold scepters. 

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe remained completely unscathed. In 1791 after an accidental ammonia spill onto the tilma’s canvas, the image apparently repaired itself without external help.

Known as the Queen of the Patriots and declared the Patroness Saint of Mexico by the Church in 1737, the Virgin’s image has been a symbol of national unity in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Camping World

Both Miguel Hidalgo in the 1810 War of Independence from Spain and Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 led their armies with the Guadeloupean flag. After exhaustive scientific studies of the cloak itself, whose colors remain vibrant after 500 years of exposure, no visible brush strokes or under-drawings were evident. 

After a formal church investigation of Juan Diego, the Church declared both the image and Juan Diego venerable.

On May 6, 1990, Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego during mass at the New Basilica, and in 1999, he proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe to be the Patroness of the Americas, the Empress of Latin America and the Protectress of Unborn Children. Finally, on July 31, 2002 before a crowd of 12 million people at La Villa, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego. 

The miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe was complete. The Mexican people’s faith and love in ‘Her’ grows stronger with each generation. 

Carlos Fuentes, noted Mexican novelist said, ‘You cannot truly be considered Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.’ Mexican Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, Octavio Paz wrote in 1974, ‘Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith in only two things: The Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.’

A Statue of Pope John Paul II in Mexico City
Statue of Pope John Paul II in Mexico City

If You Go:

When safe travel resumes, if you plan a trip to Mexico City, place a visit to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe at the top of ‘must-dos.’

Learn more before you go with this travel guide to Mexico City, The Monocle Travel Guide to Mexico City by Monocle. Available on Amazon here.

Author’s Bio: After a life-long profession of treating the mentally ill at a PA psychiatric hospital for 33 years and also serving as its Director of Admissions, Carol retired to Lake Chapala, Mexico in 2006 with her husband, to pursue more positive passions. Her family thought that she, too, had ‘gone mad.’ She’s been teaching English to Mexican adults for ten years, in a program operated by volunteer expatriates and writing for local on-line and print publications. Using her adventures experienced during visits to over 80 countries to capture a niche in travel writing, Carol also dabbles in ‘memoir.’  A frequent contributor to Lake Chapala English magazine, “El Ojo del Lago,” she’s won several literary awards from that publication, including Best Feature in 2010 and Best Fiction in 2014. She also netted a story regarding her psychiatric field work in the published anthology, “Tales from the Couch.”  

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